11.6-in. MacBook Air: Don't Call It a Netbook

To see how the Air would fare under continuous use, I turned off energy-saving preferences so it wouldn't sleep, watched a TV show in full-screen mode, then fired up streaming radio via iTunes while I surfed the Web and worked on a document. I managed to get 3 hours and 7 minutes of use (with the screen at full brightness and Wi-Fi in use) before needing to plug it in. The stereo speakers located under the keyboard did a credible job with the classical music I had playing in the background while I worked. When I was just surfing the Web, I got just under three and a half hours. As always, your mileage will vary depending on how you use the laptop. (Turning the screen brightness down will extend battery life.)

I also wanted to see how the 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor would stack up against other chips in other Apple laptops, so I fired up the Xbench benchmarking app. Here's where the speedy flash storage works well with the processor. I ran Xbench three times and came up with an average score of 122. That's 1 point higher than the score I got on a late-2008 MacBook with a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo chip, though not as high as the 133 benchmark I got on the second-generation MacBook Air (which had a faster processor and a full-fledged SSD in it). And it's a far cry from my 2009 MacBook Pro, which has a 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and returned a score of 176.

In other words, the processor in the Air isn't a barnburner compared to other Intel processors on the market, but it doesn't have to be. If you want more processor speed, the MacBook Pro line offers Core i-series chips that are more suited to processor-intensive tasks. If you want the ultimate in portability, there's the Air.

Final thoughts and recommendations

When I showed the MacBook Air to one of our tech gurus at Computerworld, the first thing he said was, "Oh, that's Apple's take on a netbook." In a sense, he's right -- in the same way that the iPad is Apple's take on a tablet.

The Air is indeed similar in many respects to a netbook in terms of size, weight and processing power, but it's still very much a laptop. With a full-size keyboard, top-tier design and construction, and speedy flash memory that more than compensates for the 1.4-GHz CPU, the Air stands head and shoulders above today's netbooks. It nicely fills the niche between iPads and Apple's other laptops: Users looking for the portability of an iPad and the traditional feature set of a laptop can now fulfill those needs with the MacBook Air.

The most important change Apple brought to the new Air is onboard flash storage, a technology that would have seemed exotic even a year ago. But now, building on the flash-based iPad's success, it makes sense, and it allows Apple to simplify and refine what was already a sturdy and stylish laptop design.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple move to flash storage in all of its laptops over the next couple of years, and I wouldn't be surprised to see elements of this new Air's design -- the thinner chassis and sharpened curves -- migrate across the entire MacBook Pro line. I hope I'm right on both counts.

Two bits of advice if you're buying one: Opt for 4GB of RAM. Mac OS X will perform better with more memory, and while 2GB is enough for now, you can't upgrade the RAM later. And as I stressed earlier, make sure you get enough storage. It's possible to get by with the 64GB offered in the $999 model, but you won't have a lot of room for videos, photos and other data down the road. 128GB is my own minimum.

Personally, my ideal MacBook Air would offer 256GB of storage in the 11.6-in. model -- and a backlit keyboard. In the meantime, this one should fit the bill quite nicely, particularly for anyone who wants a small and lightweight laptop that offers well-balanced performance on the go and looks good to boot.

Ken Mingis is Managing Editor, News at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Topic Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmingis or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds: articles | blogs

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